This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 21st February 1994, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

“In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves.”

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called MANSFIELD?

At first sight the origins of this name seem obvious. If is is, of course, a location name, taken from "Mansfield" in Nottinghamshire and must mean "the field of Man". But on reflection one is then obliged to ask the question: Who, or what, is "Man"? And that is not as obvious as it seems.

The second unit of the name, "-field" is straight forward. It has already been encountered under "Oldfield" (13th December) and means "open country", distinguishing it from "woodland" and is not to be understood as referring to the measured acres with defined boundaries such as are known today. Indeed this could hardly be the case, because "Mansfield" is mentioned in chronicles considerably pre-dating the introduction of the closed field system.

The first unit of the name, "Mans-", is, however, not straight forward. There are several paths which can be followed and most of them lead nowhere! The problem is that "Man" is an old word which has or had more meanings than just "member of the human race". Furthermore, place names reveal a puzzling interchange between "Mans-" and "Man-", For example, "Mansfield" is found not only in two places in Nottinghamshire, but also in Scotland (Ayr and Louth) whereas there is "Manfield" in North Yorkshire.

The intermediate "-s-" can be significant, and it involves considerable research to discover if that letter was originally part of the name, has subsequently dropped out or was added later. Its absence is important. In the case of "Manfield" the unit "man" is derived from a word which meant "open and uninterrupted expanse of territory". It survives in the expression "the Mainland" meaning the wide view of land which can be observed on board ship at sea. Hence in that case, it is a doubling-up of the name, and in modern terms signifies "common land".

"Mansfield" is another matter entirely. It is certainly an old name and is recorded as early as the 12th century, The place itself was already important during Anglo-Saxon times and many Royal Households assembled there, and continued to do so until about the time of the Tudors. This would have led to a lot of movement and local land-workers and servants, who would naturally adopt the name "Mansfield", might have been taken or sent to other parts of the country.

This probably explains why it is so widely distributed all over the British Isles - even in Ireland, In those days you were looked upon as nothing more than part of your Overlord's property and could be moved around as if you were a piece of furniture. Until quite modern times, in Nottingham, the miners were treated as part of the mine and bought and sold along with it. when it changed hands!

There is not sufficient space to discuss all the possible origins of the name. For example, it is quite likely that so important a site could have been the setting for many a desperate conflict, now lost in the mists of history. An extremely old word for "evil" is "man" and it could have been that such events remained in folk memory and that "Mansfield" could have been interpreted as "the Field of Conflict" or "the place where evil deeds were done"! Still that is rather too fanciful and romantic to be seriously entertained. It is mentioned principally to illustrate an unusual application of the word "man".

The meaning which seems the most convincing lies within the fact "man" that is found in many old languages and means "rock" or "boulder" or "stone". It occurs as "men" in Breton (which was settled by the Ancient Britons, hence the name "Brittany"); in Welsh as "Caen"; in Cornish as "medn" while in the North of England a cairn of stones is still called a "man". The region around Mansfield is noted for Ancient Stone Monuments and so it is perfectly feasible to suggest that later settlers gave it a name indicating that it was a "place where there are many stones" - meaning, of course, distinctive stones, now identified as having been set up or placed by former communities. As time went by, these later inhabitants adopted the name "Mansfield" and today, many people bearing it can certainly take it that they have descended from ancestors who identified themselves as "dwellers in the open space where great stones are found".

The most celebrated person under the name, however, came from Scotland and he alternated the spelling between "Manfield" and "Mansfield". He began life as "William Canfield" (1705-1793) and then adopted "Mansfield" when he became Lord Chief Justice - an Office he held with almost unrivalled distinction.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 21st February 1994.

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